A Clearcut Case
Giant sequoias do not need loggers’ help.
Thursday, July 6, 2006
In the Mineral King campground in Sequoia National Park a few weeks ago, we were just finishing up a late breakfast, sitting in the sun on top of a stump the size of a house, when a ranger came by leading a small walking tour to the base of a big pine just across the road. We hadn’t planned on taking a natural history walk, but there it was, so we jumped in.
It was a humbling experience, getting schooled with the 10-year-olds and suburbanites from Iowa. I thought I knew a little bit about the place—I’ve been tromping around in the Sierras east of here for years—but I was wrong. The “ponderosa pines” I had been admiring turned out to be either sugar pines or Jeffrey pines (one must check the cones to be able to tell them apart); what I thought were lodgepole pines were in fact white pines.
Here’s something else I didn’t know: Sequoias have never been favored as lumber, because they are just too damn big. Over the years, would-be timber barons tried to turn the biggest trees on earth into lumber, but they failed.
The Sequoia Monument, which ought to be a cathedral to nature, is now a logging camp.
(The ranger explained that the giants were nevertheless harvested for other uses. “They made them into pencils and toothpicks,” she said. Someone on the tour groaned, apparently dismayed that these magnificent creatures would be used for such mundane products. “Well, we do need pencils and toothpicks,” the ranger said, almost apologetically.)
I was surprised to learn that sequoias were not decimated for lumber. Sequoia forests are so rare, I had assumed that, like redwoods, they were taken for their wood. Not so. There are only 75 groves of Sequoia gigantea remaining in the world (all of them a half-day’s drive from Monterey County). Most of the rest were destroyed—not for the big trees themselves, but for the sugar pines and Jeffrey pines that grow alongside them. While the sequoias themselves still stand, the forests that sustain them are being wiped out.
Of the remaining groves of sequoia, only a handful of them live in healthy, intact forests. Most of the remaining sequoias stand in parks, or stand alone amid clearcuts, in which the neighboring trees have been harvested. And in the past few weeks, some of the last of the primeval sequoia forests have been invaded by loggers—despite great efforts to preserve them.
The 327,769-acre Giant Sequoia National Monument was created by Bill Clinton in 2000, carved out of the Sequoia National Forest to protect the last of the 2,000-year-old trees and the forests that support them. Clinton’s effort to protect the ancient forests, spurred by decades of work by California environmentalists, has been undermined by the Bush-administration Forest Service, which still manages the land.
Many Americans assume that National Forests are places of refuge for trees and such. This is not the case. The US Forest Service, a branch of the US Department of Agriculture, generally manages its forests to serve the timber industry. Many of its forests are industrial wastelands. They are allegedly managed for “mixed use”—but logging has generally dominated the mix.
Somehow, the Forest Service has found a way to allow logging in the newly-protected Monument. As you read this column, chainsaws and bulldozers and skidders and logging trucks are at work in the Sequoia National Monument, avoiding the giant sequoias themselves, but dropping and hauling out the big 450-year-old pines that surround them.
The Bush administration claims that the logging is designed to protect the sequoias from fire—the logging, we are told, is being done only to remove “fuel.” This is either extreme naiveté or a cynical lie.
A forest is a complex system—and here, things don’t work the way they seem. It’s true that decades of fire-suppression have allowed too much brush to build up. It stands to reason, in simplistic terms, that these forests can benefit from some kind of thinning. But many studies have shown that taking out the big pines that help constitute a healthy sequoia forest only makes matters worse. The Forest Service, especially since Bush-appointee Dale Bosworth took over its operation, pretends not to understand this complicated stuff, and so the giant pines fall, and the Sequoia Monument, which ought to be a cathedral to the magnificence of nature, is now a logging camp.
Underneath the nuances of ecological science, and underneath the pseudo-science that is used to justify the Forest Service’s current logging operation 200 miles east of us, is a simple truth. Sequoias are 2,000 years old, and they did just fine for millennia without the help of the Forest Service. To the extent that it is possible, they should be shown the respect that they deserve, and be left alone.